“July 2, 1964,” says the singer songwriter in rich tones, recalling the date he set sail – on a ship called Success – from the Virgin Islands, where he’d grown up, bound for Miami then on to New York.
Music was in Fagan’s blood. His father, from whom he was estranged, was a tenor saxophonist who fraternised with Lester Young and Billie Holiday, while his mother was a jazz dancer. Further back in his family, his grandmother “was a girl from Scotland who was a bar room singer who came alone to New York at 18”.
Fagan says he realised that he wanted to sing “very early on”.
“I was nine years old, we were living in Puerto Rico, next to El Sanguito, which was the most fantastic old slum in Spanish America, and I saw what was the daily reality there and I said, ‘Oh Lord, I’ve got to write something about this, I’ve got to tell the people in America about this so they can help it and change it’. I immediately set to work trying to write a song that would right those wrongs and try and use my squeaky little voice to sing it.”
When he arrived in New York City, at “just turned 19”, he headed – via Greenwich Village – to 52nd Street where he’d been born. In 1945 the area had been “jazz heaven”; by the mid-1960s rock ’n’ roll lyricist Doc Pomus, who’d co-written hits such as Teenager in Love, Sweets For My Sweet and Save The Last Dance with Mort Shuman, was staying there.
“I went to Doc’s room at the Forrest Hotel right across the street from the Brill Building and sang my little songs for him – I had two originals and a song that I had adapted – and when I was finished he said, ‘Tell you what I’m going to do, Scotty, I’m going to sign you to personal management and I’m going to sign you to my production company. Go and tell the bell hop that you’ve enrolled and let’s get started.’”
Over the next two years Pomus and Shuman schooled their young charge in the craft of songwriting. Fagan had shortlived singles deals with Columbia and Bang Records but it wasn’t until 1967, when he signed with manager Herb Gart, who later steered the careers of Buffy Sainte Marie and Don McClean, that he was able to start work on his debut album, South Atlantic Blues.
A song cycle about his hard knock life in the Virgin Islands, wrapped around a love story, it combined folk with r’n’b, jazz, baroque pop and Caribbean island rhythms, it was to provide a showcase for Fagan’s striking voice whose tones were not dissimilar to Donovan or a young David Bowie.
Although Gart had promised Fagan he’d be “bigger than Elvis in six months”, the record sank without a trace when it was released on Atco in 1968.
Fagan might have acquired a fan in the artist Jasper Johns – who was inspired to create a lithograph in his honour – and later co-written a rock musical called Soon, but his story may have laid in obscurity were it not for South Atlantic Blues being rediscovered by the Shindig writer Hugh Dellar and reissued last year by Light in the Attic Records.
Its subsequent acclaim as a ‘lost classic’ has proved hugely gratifying for its creator who’d continued writing songs while fathering five children (“by four different mothers – that’s just traditional island behaviour”) and doing “everything else in the world too” to make ends meet.
Next month Fagan will play a headline tour across the UK with members of the group Trembling Bells. At 71, he seems delighted to have finally found an audience for his work and hopes there’ll be scope for further records. “You just don’t give up,” he says of his passion for music. “You just have to find a way. That’s the kind of nut I am – never give up. Never, never, never.”
Scott Fagan plays at Brudenell Social Club on Tuesday October 11. For details visit http://www.scottfagan.com/